Advent I: From the Rubble

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017.

Isaiah 64:1-9

Mark 13:24-37

I remember childhood Christmas decorations as a mismatched hodgepodge of random stuff that had accumulated in the family for years. By this, I don’t mean beautiful, family heirlooms. We had a single, nativity scene, chipped, painted plaster figures, with legs on the manger that would collapse sending the baby Jesus tumbling to the floor. There were a couple hand-knit stockings, one with my name, the other with my brother Steve’s name stitched in. When my brother Tom came along, there was no knit stocking for him, so he got a plain store-bought one. We would haphazardly string colored Christmas lights, the kind with the big bulbs, on one bush in front of our house. We decorated our tree on Christmas Eve with a similar mixed-bag of mismatched ornaments. Once or twice, Mom found the time to help us make strings of popcorn and cranberries to put on the tree. And that was it! Simple, most imperfect, but it was ours and it was beautiful!

I have observed a couple things about Christmas decorations in the past decade or two. First, it is now quite common to see homes decked inside and out in a way that I would call magazine-worthy, exquisite, everything matching, like living in a department store window. The other part of this phenomenon is that this perfection can be had on a budget from Target, Kmart or Walmart. I give credit or blame for this whole phenomenon to Martha Steward and the proliferation of hers and copycat brands. There will be purists present, those who spend many hours crafting elegant homemade decorations each year who will scoff at the promise of store-bought perfection-in-a-box, but you can’t argue that it has changed decorating, indeed Christmas, in a profound way. Christmas perfection can be yours, and it’s on sale now!

And who wouldn’t want Christmas perfection! For some, the beginning of Advent marks the beginning of getting Christmas right.

Well, Bible scholar David Lose challenges this notion. Lose calls Norman Rockwell the most dangerous artist of the past half century.

“Think of it this way,” he writes, “how many of us look at Rockwell’s famous painting of a family gathered around a holiday table, all smiles and about to dig into a turkey, and somehow wonder why our family experiences don’t quite measure up. No arguing in this picture. No debate over recent politics. No one disappointed because there are no vegan options at grandma’s table. Instead, familial bliss. Perfection. Little wonder our experiences don’t measure up.”

Of course Lose has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek in his critique of Rockwell. The fault is not the artist’s but our own, our tendency to forever compare our lives to some unattainable, idealized standard of perfection, whether Stewart’s or Rockwell’s.

This, says Lose, is the value of the apocalypse narrative in the gospel of Mark. Now, this might seem like a leap, so let me explain. First, what the heck is an apocalypse narrative?

An apocalypse is a genre of biblical literature. Apocalypticism emerged in response to extreme social and political crises. The book of Daniel, in the Hebrew Bible, is an apocalypse, and was written to answer the Greek emperor Antiochus IV’s violent suppression of a Jewish revolt, 167 years before the birth of Christ.

Chapter 13 of Mark is often referred to as “the little apocalypse” and references the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans following another Jewish revolt in the year 70 AD.

Though sometimes understood as predicting end times, an apocalypse is actually meant to reveal the way things really are today and offer hope for the future. An apocalypse has three characteristics, dualism, (good versus evil), pessimism (times are extremely tough), and imminence (the good and the evil will soon be judged and get what they deserve). Though the language and symbols of apocalyptic writing can be dark and scary, an apocalypse actually affirms that God is still working for good even amidst the most abject hardship and suffering, and reflects a hope for better times ahead.

In this morning’s Mark passage God’s redemptive work is symbolized by the coming of Christ in glory. Mark’s readers would recognize the symbols of darkened sun and stars falling from the sky from other Jewish apocalyptic literature.

It would be easy for us to draw contemporary parallels with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Many today feel like all our institutions are under assault, at risk of being torn down, left as rubble. In fact, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple seems pretty tame compared to the daily social and political crises we experience today. Apocalyptic books and movies so popular right now put words to a sense of dread many feel.

But instead of turning to today’s headlines, I’d like to make a more personal connection with apocalyptic dread before circling back to Advent and Christmas.

Many of you know that my family and I recently had a short-lived but painful experience as foster parents.

After attending a ten week training in the spring, we were matched with an eight year-old foster son, Kameron. We began regular day and overnight visits at the end of the summer and were quickly charmed. He was funny, smart, athletic, and affectionate. He moved in with us at the beginning of September. We were wholly committed to making his time with us successful. But after a brief honeymoon we began to face significant challenges with his behavior. These weren’t entirely unexpected, and we sought help from the cadre of social workers available to us. Unfortunately, the relationship continued to deteriorate; he challenged us in ways we never imagined and weren’t prepared for. He triggered emotions in both me and Lourdes that were entirely unhelpful in our role as foster parents. His last week or two with us were some of the most emotionally overwhelming Lourdes and I have ever experienced, and the night he moved out was devastating for all of us. The following days and weeks were really rough, filled with feelings of grief, guilt, remorse, shame, blame, embarrassment, disappointment, failure, betrayal, and anger.

At moments evil seemed to have the upper hand. We were pessimistic in response to this crisis. I can say without exaggeration that this felt… apocalyptic. The experience shook our view that we were in charge of our happy lives.

I won’t pretend that we have worked through all these emotions, we most certainly have not. But whereas it at first seemed that we would be stuck in the same dark, awful place forever, that nothing would ever be bright and happy again, I am now aware of God’s continued presence and movement in our lives.

Jesus uses a fig tree as a metaphor to describe God’s ever emerging presence. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.”

I have to believe, that just as I see signs that God is putting forth a few tender, green leaves on the branches of our lives, so God is also near to Kameron wherever he landed. And I absolutely believe that God is near to each of you, even, perhaps especially in response to those crises and traumas in your lives that seem apocalyptic, the loss of a loved one, the trials faced by our children, the exposure of our own limitations and failure. Anywhere we experience grief, guilt, remorse, shame, blame, embarrassment, disappointment, failure, betrayal, and anger.

And this, is good news on this First Sunday of Advent. Martha Stewart and Norman Rockwell do not set the standard for a successful, perfect Christmas. Jesus does.

By all means decorate! Whether your decorations are from Target, elegantly handcrafted, or a mismatched, aging collection of memories, by all means decorate. (These are new to the Harris household this year) But don’t confuse the idealized standard of Christmas perfection represented in the magazines with God’s standard. In fact, comparing our haphazard lives to these standards likely accounts for much of the depression that is so prevalent at this time of year.

If Mark’s apocalypse reminds us of nothing else, it is that God continues to put forth new growth, even from the rubble of our lives.

God loves us as we are, accepts us as we are. Yes, we have room for improvement. And yet, at the exact same time we are enough – totally and completely enough – and deserve love and respect now.

David Lose offers some sage advice. Rather than dwelling in the rubble and brokenness, and rather than looking too far ahead, to the end of time or even to December 25th, let us embrace a “present-tense Advent” here and now, an Advent that directs our attention to this very moment, imperfect yet beloved, fragile yet eternal, flawed yet beautiful, this very time in which God chooses to meet, love and redeem us. Here. Now. And forever. Amen.

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